Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tall Reeds (Phragmites) -- © Dave Spier

Tall (Common) Reeds, Phragmites australis, at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge


          They're most noticeable beside the road in drainage ditches and low spots.  These tall plants with sword leaves and beige plumes extend their grasp year after year.  You may know them by several names including Common Reed, Tall Reed or Phragmites (the generic portion of Phragmites australis, the Southern Reed).  Look closely and you'll notice it's just another hollow-stem grass (though unusually large) with long leaves sheathing the stem.  The feathery plumes at the top are the flowers that turn to brown, then beige, then gray as the seeds ripen.
            During Colonial times and continuing into the 19th century, a native variety of Tall Reed grew along the coasts.  In the early 20th century, a nearly identical, but more aggressive European variety was introduced into one or more Atlantic ports.  Seeds clinging to boat hulls expanded its range along the Erie Canal.  Tall Reed has since exploded into disturbed wetlands where it spreads by seeds, dense tangles of underground rhizomes, and roots that can grow down several feet.  Colonies become dense stands that can choke waterways and crowd out any native wetland plants.  Reeds thrive in alkaline soils, so the abundant limestone and dolostone across Western and Central New York makes an ideal growing environment.  Cutting and burning are ineffective as controls.  Not surprisingly, winter salt runoff has no effect, considering reeds grow in brackish marshes along the east coast.  In fact, the salinity may suppress native freshwater vegetation, tipping the balance in favor of reeds.  This plant seems to be here to stay.

            European reeds have been used for roof thatching and cattle feed, and for making mats, pen quills and low-quality paper.  Native Americans of the Southwest fashioned arrow shafts, prayer sticks, screens and nets from the stems of reeds.  The rootstocks and seeds could be eaten as food. 
            Wildlife makes limited use of reed beds.  Red-winged Blackbirds will nest in the stands and may eat the seeds, thereby increasing dispersal of the plant.  In Europe and Asia, other species of birds are adapted specifically to life in extensive Phragmites stands.
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1 comment:

thomas peter said...

Throughout the month of August, contractors used excavators fitted with hydraulic hammers to break up the 150 foot concrete spillway of native wetland plants